The national conversation on American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) innovation is once again poised for center stage via H.R. 5325, otherwise known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. By now, STEM professionals and educators are all too familiar with dire statistics that reveal an America falling further and further behind in the global innovation marketplace and a K-20 system that is failing to produce math and science talent in the ultimate form of postsecondary STEM graduates. Of course, all of this has bearing on our national economy and related workforce needs given Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that estimate the need for 2.5 million new STEM workers by 2012.
Seen as a legislative response to such trends came the bipartisan 2007 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act. Now, with an administration that has committed to doubling the federal investment in science over 10 years, the Act’s reauthorization is more important than ever. Rightfully so, and with impressive empirical basis (in part provided through testimony by the scholarly community), the Act’s Diversity and Broadening Participation Provisions call for increased attention to student transition points across a myriad of U.S. postsecondary institutions, transformative undergraduate curriculum that meets the needs of diverse learners, and increased attention to diversity outreach and data collection by national agencies.
The reauthorization also halts the president’s proposal to consolidate National Science Foundation (NSF) Broadening Participation programs (the subject of a previous STEM Watch entry) and, true to the 2007 Act, calls for continued public-private partnerships.
Yet what most concerns me—and I know I’m not alone—is how the thoughtfully crafted diversity provisions and amendments translate into actual practice on the ground. While proposed collaboration is a powerful message in language, we must go one step further in its action—whether it be part of this legislation or in response to the precedence it sets.
In addition to the reauthorization’s proposed creation of energy innovation hubs (cross-disciplinary collaborations of leading scientists), there must also be active recognition and expansion of the education innovation hubs that have taken shape in recent years. These regionally focused networks position leading K-20 education researchers and practitioners as partners to new and existing federal- and state-based STEM initiatives that draw on scientific leaders from academe and industry. This recommendation is made in the spirit of allowing local needs assessment, much like that of a recent Brookings Institute proposal to support regional industry clusters in pursuit of achieving national innovation goals.
Localized education-focused hubs are indeed in motion. Look at Tapping America’s Potential—a private business-led effort to increase the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees over the next five years through largely state-based education and immigration reform. Or, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which proposes NSF-supported expansion of regional specialty math and science high schools and joint government-industry graduate fellowships. Statewide efforts include the Ohio STEM Learning Network and the California STEM Innovation Network—both of which rely on alignment between secondary and postsecondary education within the respective states, as well as action-based partnerships between the public sector and business and industry.
Translating the regional-focused diversity provisions of America COMPETES into on-the-ground action by supporting education hubs in underserved communities is the next step. Since states differ in the challenges they face when working to provide education and workforce access to marginalized groups, solutions must not only be holistic but also localized in their approach.
The role of bipartisan public policy in changing the landscape of our nation’s STEM workforce—to represent the makeup of our citizenry and our workforce and economic needs—is of great significance. We know that, in order to truly achieve diversity in STEM education, we must weave diversity initiatives across these divisions and onto campuses, into laboratories, and inside private industry. To achieve such victories, we need regional infrastructures of education leaders that can help create and continuously evaluate federal- and state-based initiatives in the local context.
And we must not let politics get in the way of moving this country forward. The civil rights and lives of our citizens, and the health of our economy and global positioning, are at stake.
Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.
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